4:53 PM CDT, August 8, 2011
This time, Steve Bartman comes to the rescue.
For the first half-hour of Theatre Seven's "We Live Here," an original, ensemble-driven, multiauthor homage to the quintessence of the city of Chicago, the show flails around. The early pieces feel pretentiously staged and inattentive to detail — and if there is one way you do not want to begin a show about Chicago and what it means to those who chose to spend their lives within its challenging borders, it's with pretension.
Better by far to stick to telling the simple truth.
At the top of this show, which was penned by Kristin Idaszak, Doug Whippo, Kim Morris, Nick Ward, Brian Golden, Laura Eason, Scott Barsotti and Molly Each, and conceived and directed, sometimes self-consciously, by Margot Bordelon and Cassy Sanders, we meet a teenager from Itasca on an "L" train, making his first-ever trip into the city and looking out the windows like he's suddenly been transported to Oz. He is from Itasca, Ill., for goodness sake. Never been to the city? Can't buy it. The ensemble cast certainly arranged themselves according to the internal geography of the cars on the Red Line, but I couldn't get past the way the recorded voice kept saying we were at Howard, whereas the characters were talking like they were someplace else entirely.
Details, details. They matter in Chicago, a city that is all about neighborhood details. Shortly after the train dissolves — pretentiously — there's a kinetic staging of a bike messenger swooping through the city. It's all very artistic and creative, yadda, yadda — but the messenger is delivering airline tickets. Who delivers airline tickets anymore? And this is a messenger whose surroundings look more like a college studio than the perilous Loop.
Then we meet a waiter (Behzad Dabu) who wants to go to a concert but can't leave his last, lingering table. Fair enough. But they've already paid their check.
When we get to that notorious Cubs scapegoat Bartman, though, all of the arty nonsense and inattention to specifics are replaced by a surprisingly moving look back on the infamous National League Championship Series debacle. The piece, penned by Each, looks at Bartman through the eyes of those who stood around him. And although the mood is thankfully light, Each makes the point that Bartman was a quintessential Chicago figure — the paradoxical embodiment of an insecure, slippery-fingered town — and that forgiving him his sins is a lot like forgiving Chicago for freezing your bones come January or rewarding those who know how to play the old game of graft. It's a counterintuitive take and it roots the show.
Thereafter, "We Live Here" continues to get much better. There is a poignant tale of single apartment life on the Near North Side, and the pain of falling in love with a needy girl who offers her companionship and troubles, but not her romantic passion (this piece is especially well acted by Cody Proctor and Jessica London-Shields). And there is a wistful, moving piece, penned by Eason and ably performed by Sarah Gitenstein, about just following an attractive stranger down Michigan Avenue in a moment of personal crisis, without knowing what one would want to do with that, or any, stranger.
The plays in "We Live Here" were designed to be autobiographical, so it's forgivable that they skew toward one view of the city, that of the 20- or 30-something aspiring writer and artist. But I kept watching the real people who show up on the screens behind the live action and talk about their beloved hometown, essentially offering updated takes on the old Nelson Algren saw about finding lovelier lovelies than Chicago but never a lovely so real.
And never a lovely that you so fervently want to defend. There's a message there for the theater people standing in the front.
The best scene of the three-dimensional show takes place back on the Red Line, the mainline artery running through these writers' lives. Its appeal is not the physical staging; it just feels real. The piece is just a bunch of miserable but stoic Cubs fans going home together after a loss. In Chicago, be the antagonist a team, the weather, a job or a politician, who has not been there?
When: Through Sept. 11
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $22-$25 at 773-404-7336 or theatreseven.org
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